Teaching children to drink sensibly may not be sensible

The idea that parents can prevent alcohol misuse in their children by teaching them to drink responsibly at home is a popular one in many parts of Europe and elsewhere. But it may owe more to folk lore than to science, according to a new study in the January 2010 issue of the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.

In a study of 428 Dutch families, researchers found that the more teenagers were allowed to drink at home, the more they drank outside of home as well. What is more, teenagers who drank under their parents’ watch or on their own had an elevated risk of developing alcohol-related problems. Drinking problems included trouble with school work, missed school days and getting into fights with other people, among other issues.

The findings, say the researchers, put into question the advice of some experts who recommend that parents drink with their teenage children to teach them how to drink responsibly — with the aim of limiting their drinking outside of the home.

That advice is common in the Netherlands, where the study was conducted, but it is based more on experts’ reasoning than on scientific evidence, according to Dr Haske van der Vorst, the lead researcher on the study.

“The idea is generally based on common sense,” said van der Vorst, of Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands. “For example, the thinking is that if parents show good behavior — here, moderate drinking — then the child will copy it. Another assumption is that parents can control their child’s drinking by drinking with the child.”

But the current findings suggest that is not the case. Based on this and earlier studies, van der Vorst says, “I would advise parents to prohibit their child from drinking, in any setting or on any occasion.”

The study included 428 families with two children between the ages of 13 and 15. Parents and teens completed questionnaires on drinking habits at the outset and again one and two years later. 

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